Join us
Orange welcome sign that reads Royal Geographical Society with IBG.

Become a member and discover where geography can take you.

Join us

By Sarah Marie Hall, Elizabeth Ackerley, Alison Briggs, Laura Fenton and Santiago Leyva del Río, University of Manchester


Austerity has become a topic high on the agenda of geography, as a set of policies, ideologies, contexts and experiences that now often form the backdrop to contemporary research. Austerity is not just a recent phenomenon, for the cutting of state spending to settle national debts has long been used as an economic strategy. These public spending cuts relate to public sector services, such as welfare, health, care and education, as well as the charitable and voluntary sector. As such, austerity is experienced across many parts of the world and with ranging place-based histories. However, austerity is much more than an economic strategy, it is also a very personal and intimate condition of severity and restraint. Acknowledging these overlapping and interacting elements of austerity as, at once, both social and personal is key for fully contemplating austerity’s impacts. 

Austerity shapes the people and places with whom geographers research, as well as the institutions, communities and lives of researchers. As such, austere conditions shape research interests, organisational structures, collaborative relationships and funding resources that underpin research. Austerity reconfigures the communities, sectors and institutions that may be collaborators, gatekeepers, participants and benefactors of geographical research. Moreover, and significantly, austerity can deeply impact people’s lives, and the things they can do, the places they can go, and the futures they can imagine. Added to this, austerity is known to be a socially uneven process; it impacts some groups and people more harshly than others, especially women, working class people, racial and ethnic minorities and disabled people. Austerity is at the same time spatially uneven, between and across towns, cities and regions. Time is an important issue too; for the effects of austerity on people, places and policies will continue and will shape lives and futures in ways we do not yet fully understand. As such, austerity remains a key topic for human geography.

Our collective and individual research on austerity has largely focused on the UK and Europe, where austerity measures have proliferated following the Global Financial Crisis of 2008-2010. Many of these projects have also involved innovating with ethnographic, participatory and creative methods, as well as working in collaboration with community partners and organisations.


The focus of these projects has been on changing everyday lives in, with and in spite of austerity, and relates to the following core themes:

  • Social relationships and social reproduction. The Everyday Austerity project, for example, involved two years of ethnographic research with six families in Greater Manchester (UK), investigating how and if relationships between family, friends and intimates had been shaped by austerity (Hall). An exhibition across Greater Manchester was supported and hosted by a range of local charitable organisations, including The Pankhurst Centre, Working Class Movement Library and Rochdale Pioneers Museum. A later project based in North East England (UK), on Reproduction and Austerity, explored how austerity was shaping people’s decisions to have any or more children, and so shaping social, personal and intergenerational relations (Hall). Local voluntary groups were crucial to the success of the project in their support with participant recruitment.

  • Food insecurity, communities and care. This includes a project on Food Insecurity and Charitable Food Aid in Stoke-on-Trent (UK). In drawing together understandings of food insecurity and the provision of charitable food aid at both a personal and organisational/community level, the research examined the ways in which this issue is felt as a personal and lived condition in everyday life, highlighting the role of food provision in gendered care responsibilities (Briggs). A report from the project builds on these findings in collaboration with voluntary and charitable organisations in Manchester and Stoke-on-Trent. We also led a project exploring the personal and political potential of cookery classes in low-income communities in Greater Manchester with Cracking Good Food, an outreach programme that encourages community cooking (Hall).

  • Life-courses and futures. Research examining young people’s conceptions and practices of activism across the life-course in the context of UK austerity was undertaken, considering how these activisms are supported and sustained by intergenerational relationships of solidarity and care (Ackerley). Our current and ongoing research takes places across Greater Manchester (UK), Sardinia (Italy) and Barcelona (Spain), studying how austerity alters life-courses and futures. It takes a close look at how austerity has been experienced by young people, and the reconfigurations this makes to the lives they imagine for themselves going forward (Hall, Ackerley, Fenton and Leyva del Río). We work with seven international charities and non-profit organisations – including women’s organisation Inspire Oldham (UK), housing activists PAH (Spain) and youth engagement charity TDM 2000 International (Italy) – that assist in shaping our approach, supporting our activities and sharing in our findings.


From our experiences of conducting these projects, we can offer some recommendations to others doing geography on this topic and in these contexts. Firstly, we suggest to empirically approach austerity not as a moment in time or as a policy that has been enacted in the past, but as an ongoing condition. This involves a sensitivity to the lived experiences for people and communities at the sharpest end. It also requires considering how austerity can shape relationships within fieldwork and the commitments that are possible to make within financially constrained circumstances. This includes making careful, context-specific decisions about payment for time, sharing resources to pay for community spaces, offering refreshments and food, arranging or covering childcare, ensuring spaces are inclusive and physically accessible, and so on. This will involve careful engagement with and listening to organisations and people already embedded within this work. The requirements of research should not place additional demands on people and communities. 

Secondly, and related to this, methodologies need to account for austerity as an often-personal issue that may shape lives and futures. Methods should aim to capture the enduring, longitudinal legacies of austerity, as both a social and personal condition, which may include probing at difficult and often abstract questions about the future. Innovating with creative, participatory and reflexive methods can open up opportunities for people to engage with research in sensitive and accessible ways.



  • Austerity is a socially and spatially uneven condition that has deep consequences for some people and groups more than others, and which shapes social and personal lives.

  • Research on, in and with austerity can highlight significant changes to relationships, responsibilities and life-courses.

  • Austerity should be approached as an ongoing process with enduring impacts, which can shape research design, methods and praxis.


How to cite

Hall, S. M., Ackerley, E., Briggs, A., Fenton, L., and del Rio, S. L. (2023) Geographies of, in and with austerity. Working with voluntary and community groups. Royal Geographical Society (with IBG) Guide. Available at:


About this guide

Working with voluntary and community organisations for some is a very important way to do geography. These organisation come in various shapes and sizes and may also often be referred to as the third sector, the voluntary sector, not-for-profit organisations, community groups or the civic sector. In this guide, we share the experiences of researchers doing geography in collaboration with community and voluntary organisations. A range of topics and issues are explored from health, disability and care, through to austerity, violence, and craft, amongst others. We learn about the approaches taken by geographers in their work with community and voluntary organisations, and some of the challenges they have negotiated in the process. 


Read next...